Erika D. Smith

Reality of race is lost on tone-deaf GOP convention

Marni Halasa of New York City smiles as she shows police officers an anti-Donald Trump sign after they cleared the Public Square in Cleveland on Tuesday.
Marni Halasa of New York City smiles as she shows police officers an anti-Donald Trump sign after they cleared the Public Square in Cleveland on Tuesday.

The sun beat down relentlessly on Public Square as officers stood back watching and waiting. Over the sound of drums, drowning out the hate from Westboro Baptist Church, there was yelling.

A white guy, then a black guy. A racial epithet, a curse word, then a shove.

The crowd convulsed.

“Everybody pray right now!” a craggy old woman, shrouded in all black, shouted as protesters ran toward and then away from the fray. “Everybody stop what you’re doing and pray right now!”

This was Tuesday – hours before House Speaker Paul Ryan took the stage a few blocks away at Quicken Loans Arena, where he, in all of his wealth and whiteness, would tell the rest of us that in America, we see beyond race and class.

He probably didn’t know that for hours that day, police had struggled to keep control of protesters who very much cared about race and class. Officers repeatedly tried to separate groups of angry people by ideology. But in reality, they often resorted to educated guesses about who was actually mad at whom.

It was hard to tell.

By my count, there were more than a dozen groups, all with differing and yet overlapping agendas – including religious fundamentalists, Black Lives Matter activists, black militants marching in formation, white nationalists and supporters of Donald Trump shouting about the Second Amendment.

Cornel West even stopped by to denounce Trump as a “neo-fascist.” The Trump haters who were there – gun-toting Muslims and young liberals promoting gay rights – agreed with that.

Indeed, although extreme, the scene on Public Square this week has been a dramatic display of the very real divisions in America today. But try telling that to the people running the Republican National Convention.

Speaker after speaker this week has offered up preachy, tone-deaf explanations for how to mend the gaps over race, class and religion. It started Monday with Rudy Giuliani offering an overly simplistic solution to issues over race and policing.

“Black, white, Latino, of every race, every color, every creed, every sexual orientation,” he shouted. “When they come to save your life, they don’t ask if you are black or white. They just come to save you.”

On Tuesday, Donald Trump Jr., in a rousing keynote speech, explained his father’s philosophy on life. “He knows that at the heart of the American dream is the idea that whoever we are, wherever we’re from, we can get ahead, where everyone can prosper together.”

Ryan was more direct in his remarks. He was clearly trying to salvage the big tent that Trump Sr. has so tattered with his candidacy. Ryan criticized President Barack Obama and progressives for dividing people.

“In America, aren’t we all supposed to see beyond class or ethnicity or all those other lines drawn to set us apart and lock us in groups?” he asked in exasperation. “...We are all equal.”

Those are nice thoughts. They really are. And I really wish they were true, but, sorry, they’re not.

So far, only Lynne Patton, a black woman who is vice president of The Eric Trump Foundation, has seemed to get it.

In her speech on Wednesday night, she boldly and honestly said: “There’s not one person in this room who can’t deny that historically black lives have mattered less. My life mattered less and there are people out there who still believe this to be true."

You could've heard a pin drop in that arena, even though Trump's children stood to applaud Patton's words.

Powerful white men and women insisting to a room of mostly white men and women that America is fair and equal doesn’t mean a whole lot. Instead, it comes across as a stubborn, condescending self-interested refusal to acknowledge the reality that so many Americans live every day.

A slice of that reality is outside on Public Square. Giuliani, Trump Jr. and Ryan – why don’t you come outside and take a look?